The importance of assertiveness in managing boundaries

Assertiveness is a way of behaving that allows us to put across our needs, points of view, and our expectations without threatening the rights and views of others. One of the more common misunderstandings concerning assertiveness is that it’s the same as aggression but the two are very different. Using an assertive approach has many benefits:

  • It helps us to feel good about ourselves and others
  • It develops respect between people and groups
  • It helps us to achieve our personal and work-related goals
  • It builds our confidence
  • It helps us to take control over our future
  • It sets and maintains professional and personal boundaries.

Hallmarks of the assertive style

  • Demonstrates that you and others are equally important
  • Is effective, includes good listening skills and sets healthy boundaries
  • Expresses points directly, honestly, and sees other people’s views
  • Is non-judgmental, confident and action-oriented
  • Includes open and natural gestures, interested facial expressions and direct eye contact while language may include statements such as “What alternatives do you feel you have?”

Developing assertiveness takes some practice but once you’ve tried it a few times, it’s amazing how comfortable it feels. If assertiveness is a new approach for you, here are some simple things that you can try:

  • Remember the expression “we teach others how to treat us”. Keeping this in mind when using assertiveness can help to reduce our anxiety and avoid unrealistic requests from others.
  • Assert your right to be heard. If the other person is interrupting you, trying saying “May I finish my point?” but make sure that you use a calm tone and show the other person respect by not becoming defensive.
  • Be conscous of your body language during any difficult discussion; avoiding eye contact, nodding too much, or fidgeting only minimises the impact of what you’re saying.
  • When saying “no,” be clear and decisive. Explain why you are refusing but resist the urge to apologise. For example, “I can’t take on this extra work but I can help you to organise your priorities”.
  • Use “I understand” or “I feel” statements while acknowledging the other person’s views. For instance, “I understand you’re disappointed that I can’t resolve your problem but I appreciate you telling me about it. I hope you feel that I’m committed to giving you some ideas that will be useful to you”.
  • Ask your friends or family to practise with you. Their encouragement and feedback will reduce your anxiety and help you to prepare for the unexpected.

Using different communication styles to your advantage

The communication styles we use can depend on the situation we’re in, the person we’re speaking to, and how confident we feel about our position – and we may switch styles a number of times in a day. However, we tend to get our needs met when we’re acting assertively. The three basic communication styles can be defined as aggressive, passive and assertive, although sometimes, we may mix all three within one conversation. In addition to the assertive style, some hallmarks of the other two are:

The aggressive style

  • Tends to put other people on the defensive
  • Demonstrates the belief that others do not have the same rights
  • Is close minded, monopolising and lacking in listening skills
  • May result in goals being met but usually at other people’s expense
  • Is often seen as domineering, bullying or patronising
  • The style usually includes pointing, glaring, shouting or smirking, while language tends to follow a pattern: “You will sort it out” or “Just sort it out”

The passive style

  • Makes boundaries impossible to set and maintain
  • Doesn’t allow for the expression of your true feelings
  • Is indirect and hesitant – people tend to push the envelope with passive people
  • Comes across as apologetic or self-effacing
  • Results in your needs not being met
  • Allows others to drive the end result
  • The style usually includes fidgeting, nodding too often and avoidance of eye contact, while language tends to follow a pattern: “Well I guess I can help on this occasion”, “Do you think I’m doing enough to help you resolve things?”, “No problem – whatever you need”

Assertiveness when supporting others

You might like to consider these points the next time you feel that saying “no” is possible and will protect you from unwanted and unneeded stress. Remember – we often create our own stress when we say “yes” to every request from others for our support or input. Keep this in mind that it’s better to stay well than to buckle under the pressure of unreasonable demands.

  • Remember that saying no isn’t always easy, but it does get easier with practise.
  • Start off small and practise until you’re confident in other, more critical situations. A request such as “Can I have an hour from you to talk to you about some things?” when what you really need is a clear day to get work done is a great place to start - You can explain why you can’t meet them or you might feel more comfortable saying “I’m not free this afternoon, but let’s meet for half an hour this morning”.
  • Consider a win-win approach if at all possible; “I am unable to solve your problem for you but I can talk through your options and signpost you to resources that will be of benefit”.


Assertive behaviour doesn’t always mean that one person gets what they want while the other leaves empty handed. Creating outcomes that benefit both parties is easier than you might think and allows each person to feel respected.

Some simple approaches you can take include:

  • Assert yourself clearly but ensure that you check your understanding of the other person’s needs to ensure that there is an opportunity for a win-win outcome.
  • If you can identify an approach you can take that will allow both you and the other person to come away with needs met, let them know this. For example “I see your point and it occurs to me that we can both get what we need. I will do X to help you look at options and you can be sure that I will support you to get the help you need from another source”.
  • If you feel as if you’ve ‘given away’ more than you were originally prepared to do, and your boundaries have been disrupted, remember that you can try again at a later date. Try and get some practice in with friends and family beforehand.
  • Ask the other person for their ideas on how to create a win/win outcome. This encourages them to consider the options and they may well come up with ideas that you haven’t thought of.